I had a flashback this week when my son asked me what constituted “reckless driving.” Hoping his driving will be wreck-less, I told him this story.
It happened 25 years ago in Brentwood, Calif. Not the Southern California Brentwood of O.J. Simpson fame, but the sleepy Brentwood in northern California that first bioengineered strawberries.
From 1984 to 1987, I pastored the First Southern Baptist Church off Walnut Boulevard. I’m not sure it really was the first Baptist church to be built in town, but I do know that my parishioners often emphasized the word “Southern” so as to distinguish ourselves from the other Baptist church.
As our town was somewhat secluded, I would often visit the big cities that hosted the annual ministers’ conferences. And it was on my return from one of those conferences that I found myself on the wrong end of the law.
It was about 2.a.m when I drove into the city limits. There were no stoplights at the time and thus little to impede my anxious return home.
However, the town was full of stop signs.
Now before I continue, let me hasten to add I was 27 years old, fresh out of seminary. With somewhat invincible thinking, I reasoned there are only Ten Commandments and everything else seemed more of a suggestion.
And along the final half-mile homeward stretch of Walnut Boulevard, there were posted what seemed like three suggestions — stop signs about 100 yards apart.
And at 2 a.m. it certainly seemed as though a young minister, anxious to return to his young bride, ought to be allowed passage through the signs at about 25 mph. Not exactly fast enough to be reckless, but fast enough to draw the attention of a fairly sleepy police officer.
In a red flash, the officer pulled me over and began to question my memory.
“Do you recall seeing the three stop signs you just blew through?”
“Yes,” I said, sheepishly producing my license.
For the next several minutes, we played “20 Questions,” and he quickly discovered I was a pastor.
“What church?” he asked.
“The Southern Baptist church — but probably not for long.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
I reminded him the town newspaper usually published police reports, and it was difficult to imagine my parishioners reacting favorably to the news that their pastor had blown through half the stop signs in town.
As he generously wrote my ticket for running only one stop sign, he posed a question that has guided me much of my career.
He asked something like, “Have your church members never been ticketed?” In the middle of the night, the officer’s question seemed to imply a church that doesn’t realize it has a flesh-and-blood pastor would be a church that has long been asleep.
In the years since, I’ve come to realize that not only is it a sin to think of yourself as incapable of sinning, but it may be worse to think of yourself as someone who’d never want to be discovered sinning.
No, I’m not suggesting we display our sins in a way that makes us seem more human. I’m only suggesting we don’t attempt to hide our sins in a way that makes us less than human. Because, as my mom always said, echoing Numbers 32:23: “Your sin will find you out.”
Not long after that, the Brentwood News published a story about speeders and along with the story they printed a picture of an unsuspecting car driving down the road.
Guess which Baptist pastor happened by and was headlined in the Brentwood News: — “Walnut Boulevard Problem with Speeders.”
Yup, the Southern one.